NLL Referees, Part 1: Judgment calls and consistency

Over the years, I’ve heard countless complaints about NLL refs. They’re incompetent, they’re inconsistent, they’re biased, and they just plain suck are the most popular. There are always going to be complaints about officials in all sports, but they’re generally about individuals or the reffing in a particular game or even on a particular play. In the NLL, it’s more general – it seems that it’s a generally agreed-upon “fact” that all NLL refs are terrible.

Quite honestly, I’m getting tired of hearing about it. After just about every game, you’ll see complaints on twitter or on various message boards that the refs affected the outcome, because of the one bad call that was made (frequently a judgment call that can’t be proven right or wrong), or because they didn’t just “let them play” (OMG, you mean they actually called penalties when rules were broken? Fire ’em all!), or because they did just “let them play”. Obviously there needs to be a balance between calling every “ticky-tack” rule violation and not calling anything unless limbs are removed, but for every call a ref may let go because it’s too minor, half the fans are going to yell because he let it go. For every call he does make, half the fans are yelling “You called that? He barely touched him!” I imagine that refs learn very early in their career that they simply can’t win so they have to do what they think is right and ignore people who yell at them.

I’m of the opinion that the majority of NLL refs are good at what they do, and that significant biases are few and far between. Mistakes are definitely made: mostly minor, occasionally egregious, sometimes completely baffling. But the number of times I’ve come out of an NLL game thinking that the refs had a significant effect on the outcome is pretty low. However, these complaints come up so often that they’re worth taking a look at.

I’ve broken this discussion up into two parts. The first part deals with the job itself and why fans often manage to convince themselves that the refs are terrible.

Few would argue that being an official in just about any league and in just about any sport is a thankless job. There’s a lot of stress and a lot of pressure, and while the players on each team have their fans, nobody comes to see the ref. Some fans will even applaud for a player on the opposing team if he makes a particularly good play, but regardless of how good a job he does, nobody applauds the ref. If you’re a ref that fades into the background and none of the fans know your name, you’re probably doing a good job.

Face off

In many sports refs have to run around almost as much as the players do, and lacrosse is no exception. In fact, since they don’t get to rest for 30 seconds while the play is at the other end of the floor, your average lacrosse ref may run around more than many of the players do over the course of a game. They have to be on the floor, running with the play, making sure to be in a position to watch everything but also making sure to stay out of the way, and making constant judgment calls for the entire 60 minutes.

I’d be interested to know just how many judgment calls they have to make in a game. Did that 100 mph shot ricochet off the post or the goalie’s shoulder? Was that a moving pick or were his feet planted, or was it incidental contact that should just be ignored? Was that a high hit that should be penalized, or a hit to the shoulder that slid up and accidentally made contact with the guy’s head? If the player wasn’t hurt, does it matter? I saw that same hit earlier in the game and called a penalty, but now it’s overtime, do I call it?

Considering all the hits, shots, changes of possession, shot clock resets, loose balls, face-offs, penalties, and goals, it wouldn’t surprise me if there were a few hundred judgment calls in each and every game. Many of them are minor and many of them are technically judgment calls but there was no real decision to be made. There are a lot of plays, however, where a actual judgment is required. But the fans don’t think about that. You get one of those few hundred judgment calls wrong, and you’re not very good. Two wrong and you’re incompetent. Three or more wrong and you are the worst official ever to set foot on the floor in any sport. Three mistakes out of three hundred judgment calls is a 1% failure rate. How many other industries can you get 99% of your decisions right and still have people booing you and talking about how completely useless you are?

So why is it that fans think the refs are so bad? Could they be hockey or field lacrosse refs who recently started working indoor lacrosse games. Maybe, though the field lacrosse connection is more likely to be a problem with refs from Colorado and Philadelphia, and less so in Edmonton and Toronto. Do they not know the rules? I suppose that’s possible, particularly with the field guys I mentioned. It’s also possible that these refs work the NLL, the MSL or WLA, and any number of junior and minor lacrosse leagues, all of which have slightly different rules. I sometimes run on autopilot and call my younger son by my older son’s name. Nobody thinks I don’t know his name, it’s just a minor “brain fart” which happens to everybody. If it can happen to parents with their children, arguably the most important thing in their lives, it can certainly happen to a ref who works part-time for three different lacrosse leagues.

We also have to consider that the refs are on the floor and see things differently than people in the stands or on TV. They don’t have the benefit of slow motion. They don’t get to watch the Jumbotron. They can’t see the entire floor at once. They may have a player or several players standing in their field of view. They have to move around to make sure they have the best view possible but when the ball moves at 100 mph, that’s not always possible. There are only two of them, watching twelve players. Believe it or not, they’re human and they make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are going to come at crucial times and that’s unfortunate. But expecting 100% error-free officiating is simply not realistic.

A lot of fans go into a game already believing that the refs suck, and if they see one bad call (not even necessarily an incorrect call – just one that a fan disagrees with), they’ll call that proof of the ref’s incompetence. The other 299 correct calls go unnoticed. This is what’s called confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias occurs when you have a pre-existing belief (“refs suck”) and ignore evidence that contradicts it (the few hundred correct judgment calls) but remember evidence that confirms it (that one call you didn’t agree with). This is extremely common and happens to everyone, and is almost always unconscious and unintentional. But it happens. Ever get a “reading” done by a psychic? If you have, I guarantee that you remember the three or four guesses “predictions” she made that ended up being correct, but forget the fifty or so she made that were wrong. In this case, you walk into a lacrosse game thinking “So what are these incompetent refs going to screw up today?”, and walk out thinking “See? They called a penalty on Joe Awesomeguy for that crosscheck that was totally legal.” But you forget the challenge that the coach made that was overturned because the original call was correct. You forget the correct penalty call that led to your team’s power play goal. You forget the hundred loose ball calls and shot clock resets and such. And how many times have you heard home team fans yelling at the refs because they called an unfair penalty against the visiting team? Are you really complaining about their incompetence, or only when it disadvantages your team? Who’s really biased here?

In our second installment, we’ll expand on the concept of bias and talk about when fans accuse the refs of being biased – or worse.


2 thoughts on “NLL Referees, Part 1: Judgment calls and consistency

  1. Pingback: NLL Referees, Part 2: Bias and conspiracies | NLL Chatter

  2. Pingback: NLL Playoffs Week 3: Division Finals Game 2 | NLL Chatter

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